Deep thinking (underwater)…
Core business: Autonomy solutions for remote and unmanned systems
Offices: Seattle, San Diego
Clients: BP, Chevron, BAE Systems, Subsea 7, SMD, the US Navy and 13 other Navies worldwide
Deep thinking (underwater)
The original business approach was deceptively simple but it worked extremely well, establishing SeeByte as a leading solutions provider to some of the world’s most powerful navies and oil & gas corporations. “The key to the company’s early success,” says founder David Lane, “was listening to customers and focusing on their requirements.”
The company develops intelligent software for unmanned systems so they can operate autonomously, scanning the environment and processing the vast amount of data this can generate, to make decisions, interface with other systems and display information in a meaningful format. And rather than developing bespoke solutions all the time, SeeByte’s foundation model was to re-use the building blocks developed for particular systems so it did not need to re-invent the wheel for every project. Once a specific solution was built, it could then be replicated and licensed or sold, thus reducing the company’s costs and helping margins in the critical early years.
SeeByte was founded in 2001 to bring to market new technologies designed at the Ocean Systems Laboratory of Heriot-Watt University. Lane and several colleagues had developed software for a number of underwater projects and thought it was time to break into the business world while still maintaining close links with their academic partners. “Is there more value in this?” was the question that first inspired Lane. “Can we do something better? After 15 years of basic and applied research, how could we put something back and make an impact on commerce?”
The big idea was “to improve underwater operations by combining streams of sensor-derived data from remotely-operated vehicles to create a single integrated picture that would deliver greater information and awareness of an inaccessible underwater situation/location.”
Today, SeeByte’s software is used in locations all over the world to search, classify and map the underwater environment, to automatically identify objects and to inspect ship hulls and oilfield infrastructure, enhancing the capabilities of various kinds of remote platforms.
In the early days, Lane and his team thought they would be a company who built underwater vehicles, but then they realised they would be better off developing software solutions for the vehicle makers and their customers. “This approach also better reflected our technical competencies,” Lane explains.
In Lane's opinion, it was also essential to break free from the academic environment while still maintaining close links with Heriot-Watt. “The interface between the universities and industry does not always work,” says Lane. “Industry wants something that solves a problem. Academics do research.” However, there was a lot to gain from maintaining a partnership with Heriot-Watt if the company was to prosper – for example, access to research and intellectual property – but it was also important to operate as a business rather than just a research lab. “There were tangible and intangible benefits,” Lane says.“SeeByte was able to recruit key technical staff that created the research, while Heriot-Watt is not only a shareholder but also gained commercial exposure for its students through industrially-relevant project work, and support for further research. “Heriot-Watt doesn't do lots of spin-outs,” says Lane, “but it has a good track record with the spin-outs it’s currently involved with.”
Initially, the team at SeeByte explored the possibility of working with Yorkshire-based Slingsby Engineering to develop a solution for its ROVs (remotely-operated vehicles), but then it started looking much further afield.
The company's first customer was the US Navy, attracted through Heriot-Watt’s research links with Florida Atlantic University. This taught everyone important business lessons from the start, and a ‘can do’ culture with the courage not to be afraid to fail and to have a go. The US Navy also sent SeeByte a cheque before its bank account had even been opened – a nice kind of problem to have.
In the early days, the company learned much about the importance of requirements as it worked within the spiral development approach of the US Navy “acquisition pipeline,” developing early capabilities in autonomous systems for detecting underwater mines. The UK's Ministry of Defence funded some of the early-stage research, while Scottish Enterprise also supported ongoing staff training into commercial and managerial roles.
The rigour of understanding requirements also helped the company gain access to the offshore oil and gas market. Through a series of Joint Industry Programmes (JIPs) supported by major oilfield operators and contractors such as BP, Conoco Phillips, Chevron and Subsea7, SeeByte “de-risked game-changing solutions” using autonomous vehicles to inspect pipelines and other subsea infrastructure. These systems are now starting to be used commercially by customers, and have a bright future for expansion through trust generated in the technology and the team, and the commercial opportunities that have emerged. “However, it's taken almost ten years and several JIPs to get to the stage where commercial capabilities are ready and can be accepted,” says Lane.
Lane stepped down as Chief Executive last year and now spends more time developing new research initiatives, encouraging students and supporting knowledge transfer activities. But he continues to take a close interest in SeeByte and is confident the company has a big future as it continues to expand in its chosen markets and develop its IP pipeline.
One of the key strengths of SeeByte technology is systems which can make their own decisions, but probably the best decision so far was to start up in the first place – and focus on being a solutions provider in one of the world’s most competitive and profitable industries.
> The SeeByte software suite combines data streams from multiple sensors to automate activity and to give operators a complete picture of location and surroundings.
> SeeTrack CoPilot helps remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) pilots improve their ability to focus on complex tasks.
> SeeTrack AutoTracker keeps unmanned underwater vehicles precisely located relative to seabed pipelines, for accurate inspection and surveying.